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Young Arab Americans want to win Michigan for Bernie Sanders

Arab-American activists are rallying around the Vermont senator, saying they feel heard by his campaign
Hassan Almusawy, 17, says Arab Americans have felt forgotten by the political process in the US (MEE/Ali Harb)
By in
Dearborn, Michigan

Hassan Almusawy is only 17, but in November, he'll be voting for the first time.

To ensure that his preferred candidate is on the ballot, he's travelled more than 1100km from Lincoln, Nebraska to Dearborn, Michigan, hoping to convince other Arab Americans to vote for Bernie Sanders. 

In a predominantly Arab-American neighbourhood near Dearborn's Warren Avenue, the Iraqi-American teen goes door-to-door, knocking patiently and making his case for the Vermont Senator.

"I am Hassan with the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. Are you going to vote on Tuesday?" Almusawy asks in Arabic as soon as someone opens the door.

'Bernie is the most understanding for people like us from the community because when he grew up, he worked hard. His parents were immigrants'

- Israa Darwich, 18-year-old Sanders supporter

Then he proceeds to inform residents of their polling location and stresses that Michigan's new law doesn't require voters to be pre-registered to vote.

Before leaving, he hands a bilingual flyer outlining Sanders' plans and urges the residents to encourage family members and friends to vote as well.

With his coarse beard and disciplined style, Almusawy appears well beyond his years. He confidently approaches a crowd of young men hanging out on the sidewalk and convinces a few of them to vote for the first time. 

Even two early teenagers passing by get to listen to his pitch. He asks them to relay the message to their parents and older siblings.

"The youth are important," he says giggling, as he walks away from the two boys.

'Younger people are finally stepping up'

That fervent enthusiasm for Sanders amongst young Arab Americans is the rule, not the exception, and it is on full display in Dearborn - home to the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the country.

"Arab people particularly have felt wronged by the US government in the past, and Bernie tried to resolve some of those issues," Almusawy tells Middle East Eye.

He says Sanders' domestic programmes, including student debt relief, universal healthcare and tuition-free colleges would benefit working-class families like his. And the senator's recognition of Palestinian human rights also connects with Arab communities across the country.

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"It helps us to feel not forgotten, and that's a feeling that a lot of Arab Americans have - feeling forgotten by the American political system," Almusawy says.

Sanders' campaign has an office in the city where volunteers like Almusawy gather to charge their phones and get campaign literature and virtual maps to canvass. 

A shirt that says "habibi Bernie" hangs on the facade of the office. Inside, a cutout portrait of Sanders greets would-be volunteers and campaign officials who are mostly Arab American.

Israa Darwich, 18, wrote and recorded a song for Sanders that went viral with that poster behind her.

"Not me, US. That's love, that's trust so if we stick together, we'll be fine," the song goes. 

Darwich, who will be voting for the first time in her life on Tuesday, said being in the office all day and interacting with Sanders' supporters and volunteers "sparked something in her" to write the song. 

"I was just inspired, and I had my ukulele with me, so I wrote a little song," Darwich said.

She added that she and other Arab Americans identify with Sanders' policies and background.

"Bernie is the most understanding for people like us from the community because when he grew up, he worked hard. His parents were immigrants," Darwich told MEE.

'If Arabs and Muslims turn out at high levels, I think we can deliver the victory for Bernie Sanders'

- Abdullah Hammoud, state representative

"He really cares about the minority populations, and I feel like that's lacking from the rest of the political candidates."

Sanders is facing an uphill battle for the Democratic nomination, with vice president Joe Biden consolidating support in the mainstream wing of the party, and gaining endorsements from most of the candidates who have dropped out of the race. 

But Darwich is optimistic about the senator's chances and the power of young people at the voting booth.

"Younger people are finally stepping up, and we're leading a revolution at this point," she said. "I really, genuinely believe if people all actually get out and vote, the younger population will make this happen."

Must-win state

Sanders emerged as the frontrunner from the first three Democratic contests, but with many moderate candidates dropping out, Biden staged an unlikely comeback against the Vermont senator.

Now Michigan has become a must-win state for Sanders. Back in 2016, the senator won the diverse Midwestern state with Arab Americans' help, and he's looking to replicate that victory on Tuesday.

Sanders won the endorsement of almost every major Arab-American politician, newspaper and group in the area. The senator was endorsed by the Dearborn-based Arab American News and Yemeni American News, as well as the Yemeni American Democratic Caucus and the Arab American Political Action Committee.

Former gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed, State Representative Abdullah Hammoud, and US Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib are also campaigning for Sanders. 

And Sanders has been taking pride in those endorsements, featuring them heavily on his campaign's social media account. 

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Hammoud, 30, said Sanders' "consistency and authenticity" inspired his own political career when he first ran for office in 2016.

"Not only he's the candidate that can beat Trump, but he's also the candidate that can enact an agenda that would make us all proud," Hammoud told MEE.

The legislator added that several organisations are mobilising the Arab Americans to transform that enthusiasm in the community into votes. And while the national trend is that older people vote at a higher rate than young folks, amongst Arab Americans, it is the youth who are encouraging their parents to vote.

"He's somebody who speaks to the values of Arab Americans both domestically and on foreign policy issues," Hammoud said of Sanders. 

He cited Sanders' plans to ensure that all Americans have access to healthcare and higher education as well as his stance "against the Saudi regime", and an even-handed approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. 

Despite polls showing Biden with a significant lead in Michigan, Hammoud said the Arab vote may help the senator win the state on Tuesday.

"It can and will be the deciding vote in the election. If Arabs and Muslims turn out at high levels, I think we can deliver the victory for Bernie Sanders," he said.

Yemeni Americans back Sanders

With young people leading the charge, Sanders has won over different components of the Arab community, including people who may not necessarily agree about politics in their home countries. 

That rings true with many Yemeni Americans who support Sanders' push to end the war in Yemen despite disagreeing about the details of a political agreement in their country of origin.

"Bernie is about a new America. Bernie is about a new generation that wants a just America that we have been seeking for many years," Rasheed Alnozili, publisher of the Yemeni American News monthly newspaper, told MEE.

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"For us, he's taking the right positions. When we talk about the war in Yemen, he's taking the right position. When it comes to immigration policy, he's taking the right position. So for us, as Yemeni Americans, there's no other choice. We have to support him."

Ali Baleed Almaklani, co-chair of the Yemeni American Democratic Caucus, echoed Alnozili's statement, saying that Yemenis of different political convictions want the war to end.

"There's unanimous consent over ending the war - enough bloodletting," he said. 

The Yemeni community in Michigan was once seen as a marginalised community within a marginalised community, but it has been growing in size and influence, and Almaklani said Yemeni Americans will show their political weight with a high voter turnout on Tuesday. 

Yemen is on Donald Trump's "Muslim ban", but Arab activists have dismissed the "electability" argument in favour of Biden, stressing that Sanders is the candidate to beat Trump.

At the doorsteps, Almusawy, the 17-year-old volunteer, stressed that most polls show Sanders defeating the president in the general elections.

"Perhaps he can rid us of that idiot," a middle-aged Lebanese-American woman told him, referring to Trump, and promising to vote for Sanders on Tuesday.